Ecopsychology: connecting our mental health to our environmental behavior

An investigation of green behavior, and we don't mean tree-hugging (necessarily)

by Catherine Honora Kineavy
copsychology is a combination of ecology, "the science of the rela- tionship between organisms and their environments," and psychology, "the science of mental processes or behavior." This fledgling field is attempting to heal the planet and its inhabitants by delving deeply into core personality issues, in an attempt to understand environmental behavior.

Our planet's ecological health is directly related to the mental health of its inhabitants. Ecopsychologists, a group of individuals made up of ecologists, psychologists and environmentalists, are working to bring this concept to the public's awareness. Ecopsychologists believe that our destructive environmental behaviors stem from our sense of disconnection to the natural world. They contend that we have an "ecological unconscious" that is repressed in some individuals. This ecological unconscious is our connection to our evolution on earth. In other words, if we recover our sense of connection to our natural world, we will begin to be more environmentally conscious people.

One goal of ecopsychologists is to question our notion of sanity in this growth-oriented culture. For example, it is a well-known fact that westerners especially Americans are the world's greatest consumers. It could be argued that we, as a culture, are addicted to consuming. From an ecopsychological perspective, in order for consumers to curtail their overconsumption, the motivating forces of this behavior pattern needs to be identified in order to free individuals from this addiction. Ecopsychologists would argue that the disconnection between self and earth is the reason individuals do not think about the relationship between their consumer choices and ecological destruction. Further, ecopsychologists believe that if we heal the underlying addictive motivations, we will begin to heal the ecological environment because individuals would cease to overconsume, thereby becoming better "environmental citizens."


Ecopsychology follows some of the psychological premises of Freudian psychology, except that it adds an "ecological" dimension. For example, ecopsychologists believe in an ecological unconscious; they also believe that individuals should develop an "ecological ego." This ecological ego would encourage individuals to be responsible to others, and, as in the case of ecopsychology, this would include responsibility to our environment. Similar to Freudian psychology, according to ecopsychology, childhood is a critical stage of development because it is then that the ecological animism is consciously present. As adults, we begin to repress our ecological self in response to our cultural experiences.

Although ecopsychology follows some of the same assumptions of western psychology, it has been criticized as not being able to be proven scientifically. Yet, how can one provide empirical evidence for the "psyche" or "soul?" Freud's theory of the unconscious was harshly critiqued, too. It is commonplace that new theories are plagued with criticism. However, ecopsychological theories are not entirely new. Many Native Americans and other indigenous peoples have been living by these concepts throughout history. It has only been in the aftermath of the industrial, technological and communication revolutions that we have almost lost sight of our connections to the earth.

A green way of being

Ecopsychology can be considered a harbinger of an environmental revolution. Some ecopsychologists consider that ecopsychology is a new political wing of the environmental movement. In order to understand "green politics" it is necessary to understand "green behavior." Theodore Roszak, a pioneer in the ecopsychology movement, believes that "every political movement is grounded in a vision of human nature."

Roszak critiques the political tactics of the environmental movement and presents ecopsychology as an alternative to "scare tactics" and "green guilt." In other words, the environmental movement needs a psychology that will nurture understanding and compassion for ourselves and our environment, and foster new concepts of well being that include a connection between self and the natural world.

Allen Kanner maintains that ecopsychology "can play an important role in averting ecocide." Ecopsychology's premise is to determine how to initiate healthy environmental behavior. Ecopsychologists do this by defining mental health as environmentally-based. Thus, the environmental revolution will consist of a new political culture based on a reciprocal respect between individuals and the natural environment.

Ecopsychology is in the process of becoming a separate academic discipline. Ecopsychologists will act as guardians to our new political culture as well as healers. As Laura Sewall asserts, "Ecopsychology is providing us the opportunity to question the human dimensions of our ecological conditions. This includes questioning who we are, what makes for good relationships, and what constitutes misbehavior in relation to the "other" and specifically, in relation to nature." Ecopsychology broadens our context of health and healing. It maintains there is a synergistic interaction between personal and planetary health.

If you are interested in learning more about ecopsychology, I suggest Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth: Healing the Mind, edited by Theodore Roszak, Mary E. Gomes, and Allen D. Kanner. The University of California Hayward is home to the Ecopsychology Institute; it has a home page on the internet. Finally, the Foundation for Global Community, in Palo Alto, has a videotape, Ecopsychology, with an interview with Theodore Roszak and Sarah Conn, two pioneers of the movement.